It takes a remarkable level of arrogance to think that during a period of unprecedented economic and social upheaval, parliamentary oversight is a frivolous formality that this government – exceptional in its own view – can simply do without. It’s the attitude of an athlete who believes himself too good for a coach, or a writer who can’t be bothered with an editor. Except here, the stakes are roughly a quarter-trillion times higher.
With support from the NDP, which is apparently confused about its role in Parliament, the Liberals pushed through their suspension of full parliamentary sittings from June 18 until Sept. 21 in a House vote this past week. In doing so, the Liberals freed themselves from the accountability one would expect of a minority government navigating through a pandemic, and took over the reins to steer Canada through what is certain to be a summer unlike any this country has ever before seen.
The vote came hours after the release of an extraordinary report from the Canadian Armed Forces about grotesque and unacceptable conditions at five long-term care homes in Ontario. Long-term care does fall primarily under provincial jurisdiction, but there has been a role for the federal government during this pandemic in providing financial relief, in setting federal guidelines and dispatching CAF personnel to help in the hardest-hit homes. That will only be subject to regular parliamentary oversight until the middle of June.
This summer will be one of continued record unemployment, of the scheduled expiration of border-control measures with the United States and of potential retaliatory measures from China in response to the recent B.C. Supreme Court decision on the extradition of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou. The Conservatives attempted to reconvene the special committee on Canada-China Relations this past week, initially in response to the evolving situation in Hong Kong, before the threat of renewed economic penalties from China entered into the immediate purview. That effort was quashed by the Liberals, along with the NDP and the Green Party.
With a mere four scheduled sitting days in July and August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team will thus deal with China – and record unemployment, and border controls, and pandemic relief, and food-supply problems, and all of the other issues certain to arise during this extraordinary time – essentially alone, without the formal input and oversight of members of Parliament elected to represent a majority of Canadians. The government has allocated just four hours on June 17 for “debate” of a historic $150-billion emergency-spending plan. They might as well have allocated no time at all.
Other countries have, by now, figured out how to balance health concerns and physical distancing requirements with the essential role of government. In Canada, the Alberta legislature has already reconvened and scheduled sessions throughout the months of June and July. The federal government could similarly do so if the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party had the impetus to address lingering procedural concerns, and if the NDP had the wisdom not to forfeit their power in exchange for a promise to explore paid sick leave, for which the Liberals will just take credit anyway if a plan comes to fruition.
Opposition parties of the past were outraged – and justifiably so – when Stephen Harper repeatedly prorogued Parliament during his time as prime minister, most notably for several weeks in 2008 to avoid a no-confidence vote. Yet the Liberals and NDP now consider it acceptable to suspend regular House sittings for months – after Parliament has been largely adjourned since mid-March – as if this were any old summer, with a regular federal budget (which of course we don’t have) and business across Canada functioning pretty much as usual.
No doubt from a partisan perspective, the Liberals are better off focusing on Mr. Trudeau’s daily Rideau Cottage morning show, where he is unencumbered by the nuisance of parliamentary tools and procedures such as opposition days, votes and motions. Mr. Trudeau’s approval rating has jumped considerably during this pandemic. A return to regular sittings obviously would not help to maintain that momentum.
But if the Liberals contend, even implicitly, that there is no place for parliamentary oversight during the worst public-health and economic crisis in a century, then it’s hard to make the case that there is a place for parliamentary oversight anytime in Canada at all.
Perhaps Mr. Trudeau is confident that, together with his cabinet, he can govern properly without the formal input of the opposition MPs Canadians elected to represent their views and interests. If so, that confidence should be bottled and sold as a lucrative scheme toward Canada’s economic-recovery plans. But the Prime Minister ought to know that of equal importance to the proper functioning of democracy is the perception of the proper functioning of democracy. Mr. Trudeau, to be fair, almost certainly understands that. It‘s probably more likely that he just doesn’t care.
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